Travelin' Man

Peter Kowald, 1944-2002

 I lead the life of a traveler who goes to play for the people, opens his hand, gets some money, comes back home, and goes to the next one. —Peter Kowald, September 12, 2002


In the mid '90s, the late bassist Peter Kowald—a man Butch Morris says "could drive for 24 hours and only stop for gas"—spent a full year at home in Wuppertal, Germany. His intention, Morris speculates, was "to lock in on who the Kowald was in his body." He kept his car parked and rode only his bicycle. At his house, he presented concerts with world-class improvisers, collaborated with various Pina Bausch dancers, held workshops with local amateurs, and made forays into spontaneous form-sculpting with a "conduction" ensemble. Befitting an abiding passion for all things Hellenic, he fell in love with and married a Greek artist. Then he returned to the road and broke up with his wife. He flew to New York in 2000, bought a 1968 Caprice station wagon, and, accompanied by French filmmaker Laurence Jouvert and a small crew, spent 10 weeks circumnavigating the United States in a succession of self-booked one-nighters.

Not long after they returned, Jouvert made the documentary Off the Road, an account of Kowald's musical and conversational encounters in more than a dozen cities across America and various points along the highway. Meanwhile, Kowald, who had established himself as an important figure in the New York improv scene through his frequent visits over two decades, purchased a Harlem pied-à-terre to solidify his base.

The final week of this robust 58-year-old's life was entirely characteristic. On Thursday, September 12, 2002, a few hours after joining me on WKCR to publicize an upcoming series of New York events, he flew overnight coach to Italy for a pair of weekend concerts. He returned to New York on Monday. On Tuesday, he made a recording session and worked at Triad with saxophonist Assif Tsahar and drummer Hamid Drake. The next night he worked downtown with saxophonist Blaise Siwula and guitarist Dom Minasi. On Friday he would play at B.T.M. in Williamsburg with trombonist Masahiko Kono, guitarist Kazuhisa Uchihashi, and drummer Tatsuya Nakatani. He was scheduled to perform on Sunday at CBGB Lounge in trio with White Panther blues poet John Sinclair and Loisada saxophonist Daniel Carter, and then with Last Global Village, an ensemble comprising three Chinese flutists, Korean cellist Okkyung Lee, vocalist Lenora Conquest, and percussionist Ron McBee.

After the gig at B.T.M. Kowald began to feel unwell. On the ride home, he asked Kono to drop him off at the East Village apartment of bassist William Parker and dancer Patricia Nicholson. There he expired, of a massive heart attack.

Had Kowald been an actor, director Rainer Fassbinder might have cast him to play proletarian everyman Franz Biberkopf in his epic film Berlin Alexanderplatz. Burly and attractive, with close-cropped hair, Kowald moved with the deliberation of a butoh dancer and parsed his words with precision honed during youthful work as a scholar of ancient languages and translator of Greek poetry into modern German. He was a utopian, a pragmatic activist, a skilled organizer who learned the art of institution-building in the fractious milieu of radical '60s German culture.

At last year's "Vision Festival," Kowald worked the food stand, constructing $2 cheese sandwiches with the meticulousness of a master sushi chef. We can trace the existence of this annual event to his friendship with Parker, which began with a chance sidewalk encounter in 1981. Within a year, Kowald brought Parker to Berlin to play with heavyweight European free improvisers in concerts organized by FMP, the do-it-yourself grassroots German music collective co-founded by his old friend Peter Brotzman, to which Kowald had contributed mightily for more than a decade. In 1984 he received a government grant to live in New York for six months. He brought with him a 50,000-mark stipend from the millionaire painter A.R. Penck, with a mandate to make something happen.

Acutely aware that New York's outcat community would mistrust his motives, Kowald reached out to Parker as a liaison. They held meetings to plan the logistics of the first "Sound Unity Festival,"settling on the FMP payment policy of $100 per musician, including bandleaders. In 1988, again using Penck's money, Sound Unity spent $1,000 to rent the Knitting Factory for a week, and played to a packed house every night. This did not escape the notice of proprietor Michael Dorf, who established the "Knitting Factory Festival" the following year. In response, Patricia Nicholson launched the Improvisers Collective, which in 1996 evolved into the "Vision Festival."

"Peter would stop by a place that an American musician would walk past 20 times, and get something started just by being personable," Parker says. "Especially black musicians, it seems you're fighting all the time. You get worn out. You can lose your perspective if you're not on top of things. But Peter was always probing and looking for signs of life wherever he went."

Wuppertal is an industrial city of 350,000 in the Rhine basin, the home of the Pina Bausch Tanztheater and the birthplace of Engels and German Communism. During Kowald's formative years, Karlheinz Stockhausen's electronic studio was a half-hour's train ride away in Cologne, while Wuppertal's own Galerie Parnass presented Nam June Paik's first one-man exhibition and new work from Joseph Beuys. Saxophonist Peter Brotzman, who had come to Wuppertal to attend the local art school in 1959, worked as Paik's assistant, and accompanied him on Fluxus happenings in southwest Germany and the Benelux countries. Brotzman urged Kowald, a teenage tubist, to learn the bass, preaching Paik's liberating dictum: "The space is completely open, you can use any material, any ideas—everything is possible." They began to play on a nightly basis in Brotzman's basement studio.

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